Types of nuclear reactors. Gov. Glenn Youngkin wants Virginia to build a small modular reactor in Southwest Virginia. Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy.
Types of nuclear reactors. Gov. Glenn Youngkin wants Virginia to build a small modular reactor in Southwest Virginia. Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy.

The politics, safety and costs associated with developing small modular nuclear reactors like the one proposed for Southwest Virginia were the topics discussed by three experts on the environment and nuclear energy during a virtual panel discussion Thursday.

The panel was hosted by Appalachian Voices, an environmental group, and Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, and drew 156 viewers.

It was organized to help educate local residents about small modular reactors after Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced in October his plan to place one on a former coal mine site somewhere in Southwest Virginia to generate carbon-free electricity within 10 years. (Both Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power have expressed interest in developing such a reactor, with Dominion’s plans further along.)

An SMR is a compact reactor that can generate up to 300 megawatts of power. Large, traditional reactors typically generate around 1,000 megawatts of power.

Youngkin and other proponents of SMRs say the coalfields are the perfect place for one because of the availability of former coal mine land that already has the power infrastructure and clean water needed.

The small reactor has also been touted as a way to draw jobs and economic development to an area devastated by the downturn of the coal industry in recent years.

But some residents and environmental agencies have said they’ve been left out of the process and SMRs are unproven technology about which there are too many questions.

The speakers included Cale Jaffe, director of the Environmental Law and Community Engagement Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law; David Schlissel, director of resource planning analysis for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis; and Edwin Lyman, a physicist and director of nuclear power safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

No SMR has been built in the U.S., and the governor said he wants Virginia to be the first state to deploy a commercial SMR.

But Schlissel said during the panel discussion that there are “sometimes in life and in the world when you don’t want to be first.”

Whether nuclear or not, first-time design projects normally experience serious delays, cost overruns and problems during construction and the first years of operation, he said.

Schlissel pointed to several nuclear projects underway that have experienced severe cost overruns and lengthy delays.

A screenshot of David Schissel’s presentation.

The nuclear power industry’s claim that SMRs will be less expensive and quicker to build are “pure speculation as nothing is certain about the actual cost, commercial operation dates, operating performance and reliability of any SMR designs,” he said.

He also said that power generated by an SMR would be expensive and costs are going to increase over the decade it would take to build it.

The U.S. is “pretty far along” in its transition from coal and natural gas to renewables, Schlissel said, in large part because of the development of advanced inverter power controls that have enabled standalone wind and solar resources to respond almost instantaneously.

So, power plants won’t be needed in 10-15 years when SMRs would be available, he said.

“We won’t need large baseload plants like SMRs to run 24/7,” he said.

The grid will be able to handle the integration of intermittent resources with battery storage and offshore wind, Schlissel said.

Lyman addressed the safety of SMRs, which he said he’s most concerned about.

One thing that sets nuclear energy apart from other low carbon technologies is the potential for a “catastrophic accident that could lead to large scale radiological contamination of the environment, massive economic damages and the potential for significant human health impacts,” Lyman said.

According to nuclear industry estimates, there is about a 1% risk that a reactor in this country will experience a core melt accident like the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, following a major earthquake in 2011, he added.

A nuclear plant can have internal risks like a pipe breaking, or external threats like hurricanes, earthquakes and terrorist or military attacks like what is happening in Ukraine, he said.

Proponents of SMRs say they have safety advantages over the current nuclear reactors, but Lyman said that is misleading.

He claimed that one obstacle to having safer nuclear power is the NRC itself, which he said has no new requirements that the new reactors like SMRs would have to be safer than traditional reactors. The agency doesn’t want to “cast doubt on the existing fleet by saying we need something that’s safer,” Lyman added.

Jaffe spoke about the politics of SMRs, saying they could help “melt the political polarization” of climate change “by having us not talk about whether climate change is a problem that we need to deal with. But having complete debates on climate change solutions and moving from talking about the problem to talking about some solutions.”

He added that those concerned about SMRs might consider whether they want to “pick a fight” and oppose SMRs or continue moving forward with renewables and let the issue develop over time.

“It’s not a question of whether we should build as much wind and as much solar and as much battery storage as fast we can – absolutely, do not slow that down one iota,” Jaffe said. “The question is, do we pick a fight? Do we divert our own resources to opposing SMRs rather than saying, ‘let that develop if it’s going to develop, we’re going to keep moving on renewables’? Have the whole decarbonization team together.”

After the panel discussion, organizers said there remains a “great debate about the costs ratepayers will bear to build SMR technology and unknown risks to communities. The panel made it clear, we should be investing in renewable and distributive technologies that are available now, not a decade from now, and move the state to a carbon free economy and lower costs to ratepayers.”

Susan Cameron

Susan Cameron is a reporter for Cardinal News. She has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee for nearly 40 years. She is based in Bristol. Reach her at susan@cardinalnews.org.